- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Arguably the biggest fight in NASCAR history was breaking out in the grass along the backstretch as the checkered flag flew in the 1979 Daytona 500. The nationally televised skirmish involving Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers, Bobby and Donnie, has been credited with launching the sport to new heights.
Another significant moment happened as well.
Richard Petty won, snapping a 45-race losing streak that at the time was the longest of his career. The driver who 13 years later retired with a record 200 victories and a 242-race winless streak sounded as though he'd just collected his first win as he rolled into Victory Lane.
"We won! We won!" the man known as "The King" shouted.
It's the same sound of relief Dale Earnhardt Jr. expressed when he ended a 76-race losing streak two months ago at Michigan, the same sound Ryan Newman made earlier in the year when he won the Daytona 500 to end an 81-race skid, the same sound Jeff Gordon made in 2002 when he won at Bristol to end a 31-race drought.
It's the same sound you'll likely hear Sunday at Watkins Glen International if Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte or some other driver in the midst of a winless spell takes the checkered.
Drivers in general don't like losing streaks. Drivers used to winning on a regular basis hate them even more.
Gordon, who has 81 career wins and four Sprint Cup titles, has gone 26 races without a victory. Two-time Cup champion Stewart is mired in a career-record 35-race winless streak that dates back to last year at Watkins Glen.
Harvick has gone 56 races without a win. Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion, has to go back 165 races to recall his last victory.
Drivers who say it's not frustrating to go winless for long periods are lying. Just look at their reactions when the streaks end.
"That moment in Victory Lane, I wanted to pause it and burn it into my memory forever because it's such an awesome, awesome feeling," Gordon said after snapping his streak in 2002.
The odds favor a few of today's top stars ending a losing streak at the Glen. Stewart, the defending champion, has won three of the past four and four of the past six at the 2.45-mile road course. Harvick interrupted that streak with a win in 2006.
Before Stewart's dominance, Gordon won four of five races there.
But until that moment comes, the questions will persist. The drivers will be asked why they haven't won and whether they believe they can win again.
Some will answer reluctantly, tired of facing the same interrogation week after week as Earnhardt endured before Michigan.
And to many, it does feel like an interrogation, minus the bright lights, rubber hoses and deprivation of food and water.
OK, there are bright lights when television cameras are around.
"I got really sick of hearing, 'Why aren't you winning?'" 1989 Cup champion Rusty Wallace said after ending a career-record 105-race losing streak at Martinsville in 2004. "But it made me look at the pit crew, myself, my driving style. It made me look at a lot of things."
Losing streaks make all drivers do some soul searching.
"This sport is like a roller coaster: Sometimes you're at the top, and sometimes you're at the bottom," two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte said after snapping a 156-race losing skid at Darlington in 2003. "When you're down on the bottom, you just have to keep working at it, don't ever give up and keep trying to work your way back up to the top.
"Sometimes you don't know how you get down to the bottom, and sometimes you don't know how you get to the top. They're both the same thing. It's just the results are different."
Results are what all drivers are after. When they don't come, the drivers, particularly the good ones, get dissected.
"It's frustrating," Gordon said of his current streak, the third-longest of his career. "Not so much that we haven't won a race. To me, it's more frustrating that we weren't competitive to win a race. There's a big difference between leading laps, running good, having issues and not pulling the win off than not even being close to the front or leading the laps to get the wins."
Stewart's frustration is different. He's had cars capable of winning four or more races.
"It's not like we're not running well, because we are," Stewart said. "We've just had some circumstances that haven't gone our way."
Two-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson can only imagine what Gordon and Stewart are going through. His longest losing streak since coming into Cup full time in 2002 is 15 races.
"I'm sure it's frustrating," he said. "At the beginning of the year, we went [eight races] without winning, and at that point, I found it odd I was criticized for not winning in that period of time."
That's the price of success. The more you win, the more people expect you to win.
When you don't, people wonder why. But it happens to the best of them.
Seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt went through it during a 59-race winless streak that began in the middle of the 1996 season and ended with his one and only Daytona 500 victory to start 1998.
Johnson knows there will come a day when he'll be under the microscope for a losing streak as well.
"Nobody is immune to it," he said. "It happens to different people at different times. Quite honestly, I've been very fortunate to win all the races I have. You just never know when you're going to stop winning."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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